Dating back to 1766 the Clifton Observatory began life as a windmill for corn and later converted to the grinding of snuff (tobacco), when it came known as ‘The Snuff Mill’. Originating in the Americas, snuff was in common use in Europe by the 17th Century, despite objections from the prominent elite, by the 18th century snuff had become the tobacco product of choice amongst the elite. Associated commonly with luxury and excess, it is unsurprising that Bristol needed its own mill to keep up with the demand from the wealthy land owners and merchants.


Antique postcard of the Observatory


The Mill was left derelict for 52 years following a fire in 1777, when the sails were left turning during a gale causing the equipment to catch light.


In 1828 William West an artist based in Bristol rented the Observatory as his studio. West transformed the old mill into the building we recognise today by installing a large telescope into the tower and creating the Observatory. West was a well-respected member of the Bristol School of Artists, as well as his art West also had a strong interest in optics and engineering.


Scene Outside an Inn – Long Aston, Bristol – William West 


In 1829 West replaced the telescope with a camera obscura, a 13cm convex lens and sloping mirror were installed on top of the tower which projected panoramic views of the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge and surrounding area. The camera obscura, which is still working today, projects onto a white surface inside a darkened room providing a true image of the outside views. The area at the top of the building contains a convex lens and sloping mirror.

Light is reflected vertically downward onto the table, giving a true (not mirror) image. The technique, which originated in the 16th Century, gives best results on bright days. The UK has several camera obscuras still in existence today, notably in Brighton, Aberystwyth and Edinburgh, however the Bristol obscura is one of the most famous for its panoramic view of the surrounding area including the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Avon Gorge & Clifton Downs. West described the obscura as ‘embracing the whole of the surrounding scene from the gallery of the horizon’.

Giant’s Cave

West also built a tunnel from the Observatory to St Vincent’s Cave (also known as Ghyston’s Cave or Giant’s Cave), which opens onto St Vincent’s Rocks on the cliff face, 250 feet (76 m) above the floor of the Avon gorge and 90 feet (27 m) below the cliff top. The tunnel which is 200 feet (61 m) long, took two years to build at a cost of £1300, and first opened to the public in 1837. This cave was first mentioned as being a chapel in the year A.D. 305 and excavations, in which Romano-British pottery has been found, have revealed that it has been both a holy place and a place of refuge at various times in its history.

Sold for only the 3rd time in 2015, the observatory is designated by English Heritage as a grade II* listed building.